Terry v. Ohio

392 U.S. 1 (1968).

One-Sentence Takeaway: An officer can frisk the outer clothing of a person for weapons when the officer has reasonable suspicion to believe that the person is engaged in criminal activity, even if the officer does not yet have probable cause to arrest.

Summary: Officer observed Defendant (Terry) and two other individuals repeatedly walking past a store and staring into the store window which gave the officer the suspicion that they were planning to rob the store. Officer walked up to Defendant and his friends, identified himself, and performed a pat down of Defendant’s outer clothing and found a gun. Defendant was convicted of carrying a concealed weapon.

The United States Supreme Court was confronted with the issue of whether a pat down of Defendant’s outer clothing for weapons violated his Fourth Amendment rights against unlawful search and seizure. In an 8-1 opinion, the Court answered in the negative and affirmed Defendant’s conviction.

The Court held that, “[w]here a reasonable prudent officer is warranted in the circumstances of a given case in believing that his safety or that of others is endangered, he may make a reasonable search for weapons of the person believed by him to be armed and dangerous regardless of whether he has probable cause to arrest.” The Court’s reasoned that, “[t]hough the police must whenever practicable secure a warrant to make a search and seizure, that procedure cannot be followed where swift action based upon on-the-spot observations of the officer on the beat is required.”

Applying the foregoing principles to the facts at hand, the Court noted that, “the officer here was performing a legitimate function of investigating suspicious conduct when he decided to approach [Defendant] and his companions. An officer is justified in believing that an individual whose suspicious behavior he is investigating at close range is armed may, to neutralize the threat of physical harm take necessary measures to determine whether that person is carrying a weapon.”

Moreover, the Court took into consideration the fact that the officer’s search of Defendant “was confined to what was minimally necessary to determine whether the men were armed, and the intrusion, which was made for the sole purpose of protecting himself and others nearby, was confined to ascertain the presence of weapons.”

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